How to overcome the challenges of critical mass

Mondragon University’s collaborative research and knowledge transfer model is based on a structured approach to industry collaboration, building on the university’s position as a member of the Mondragon group of co-operatives. Mondragon University has established nearly twenty long term collaborative research and knowledge transfer contracts with industry partners. These contracts generate over 300 projects per year, and two-thirds of them are funded by industry. In terms of the income generated from applied research per academic staff member Mondragon University is the leading higher education institution in Spain.

Mondragon University’s collaborative research and knowledge transfer model evolves   around a Permanent Committee, involving the university, company and other technology partners, which develops a four-year technology roadmap on future technology needs within a particular industry. This roadmap is used to identify a series of potential projects with budgets which can be offered to the industry partners. Specific projects are implemented according to the needs of the industry partners, each with their own characteristics and dynamics, through project teams involving academic staff, PhDs and students. The outputs from the projects are monitored and fed back into the permanent committee. The core members of these technology committees are from the Mondragon group, but also other local firms are involved from outside of the co-operative movement.

Students play an important role in Mondragon University’s collaborative research and knowledge transfer. Mondragon has over 5000 students in professional training courses. All undergraduate and master students complete one year full-time industrial/research project; 80% of PhD students are funded by companies (e.g. industrial doctorates). Students complete also projects each semester through collaborative research and knowledge transfer projects. The results are positive: the Basque graduate tracking system shows that after 3.5 years of their graduation over 90% of the 2012 graduates were occupied (96% engineering, 93% business, 95% humanities/education), either as working or studying, and 24% were employed by the firm where they completed the final year project. Graduate retention levels are high: over 90% of the graduates remain in the Basque Country.

Additional information:

Estudio de Incorporacion a la Vida Laboral Promocion Universitaria de Grado de 2012, Lanbide 2016

University-Business Forum Reports for Basque Country 2016 (input and conference proceedings)

More Information


What was the challenge intended to be addressed? Why? What did work well? What did not work well? What have been the main achievements? How did you evaluate its success? What has been the change brought by this good practice?

The challenge was to develop a long-term industry relevant research collaboration and knowledge transfer model that would overcome the issues of critical mass and enhance regional development in Basque Country and bring mutual benefits to the university and industry partners. The model has brought many benefits including external income and technological outputs. In terms of the income generated from applied research per academic staff member Mondragon University is the leading higher education institutions in Spain. The model has also contributed to the development of mutual trust among the partners, a strong commitment to expand R&D activities within the companies, alignment between the university’s research and the companies’ needs, genuine university-industry collaboration (rather than a customer-supplier model). It has enhanced a culture of external monitoring within the university as well as idea generation to promote innovation. The model has also enhanced the institutional ability to evaluate and respond to the new industry trends and development trajectories and helps develop a new generation of technicians and researchers. A key impact of the model is also that it contributes to the excellent employability of Mondragon university graduates.

Success Factors

What are the enabling conditions (e.g. institutional, economic, social/cultural, regulatory) that needed to be in place or played a facilitating role for the good practice to be successful?

Success factors include focus on excellence, long term partnerships and specialisation.
A key success factor is also mobilising the intellectual assets of the student population who benefit from industry relevant work-based learning and exposure to authentic R&D in industry.


What are the challenges, barriers or limiting factors encountered? How have they been addressed?

Aligning R&D activities with the local and regional needs may evoke tensions between the local utility and pursuit of internationalisation and excellence. In the Mondragon University's R&D and knowledge transfer model, the world class excellence and local utility are fully compatible: Mondragon University undertakes 100% of its R&D work with local Basque companies, which often compete globally. MU has also created links with foreign research centres to ensure international experience for students. The University and its partner firms have recognised the challenge in attracting international students, and now work together to bring in people who know different cultures. Mondragon University has also developed international outreach activities which export the unique university model outside of the Basque Country.
Another challenge in engineering studies may be the lack of exposure to multidisciplinary learning, exposure to humanities and social sciences which may lead to a 'culture of disengagement' among engineers. All engineering students at MU complete a mandatory humanities/social sciences module. Mondragon University has also embedded soft skills development in study programmes. Furthermore it implements project-based & problem-based learning:  engineering students complete six semester projects, which involve working with engineers of different specialisations (but not necessarily cross-faculty collaboration). Currently the university is developing a modular model of engineering studies.

Feasibility & Sustainability

What are the elements that need to be put into place for the good practice to be sustainable (institutionally, socially, economically, etc.)? If applicable, indicate the total costs incurred for the implementation of the practice. What are the benefits compared to total costs?

The model is fully embedded in the Mondragon University R&D and education provision, rather than an add-on. It builds on the cooperative status of the university and the long tradition of industry collaboration. Due to this embeddedness, the costs of the model are difficult to estimate; however the research and knowledge transfer contracts generate over 300 projects per year, and two-thirds of them are funded by industry. Furthermore, in terms of the income generated from applied research per academic staff member Mondragon University is the leading higher education institution in Spain.

Replicability & Upscaling

What are the possibilities of extending the good practice more widely? What are the conditions that need to be in place for the good practice to be successfully replicated in a similar context? What are the steps that should be taken/respected to ensure that the good practice is replicated / up-scaled, but adapted to the new context?

The model is university-specific as it builds on Mondragon University's role as a cooperative partner of the Mondragon corporation. However several elements can be replicated in universities elsewhere, notably the four-year technology roadmap on future technology needs within a particular industry which ensures sustainable collaboration between the university and the industry partners.

Lessons learned

What would have facilitated an earlier and/or bigger impact? What are the key features that should be kept in mind if this would have to be implemented again? What would you do differently if you could go back in time? What could have been done better?

Focusing on conducting research WITH industry based on long term collaboration, rather than consultancy type research FOR industry can help smaller professionally oriented higher education institutions overcome the challenge of building critical mass.


Please provide some information about the context and initial situation that can help in fully understanding the action (e.g. information about the national system, applying regulations, etc.)

Mondragon University / Mondragon Unibertsitatea is a private non-elitist industry-facing university in the Basque Country (in Spain). It is a cooperative member of the Mondragon Corporation with over 4 000 students and 400 staff. Its four faculties (and a polytechnic school) are distributed in 8 campuses in Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia. Mondragon offers undergraduate degree programmes in Engineering, Business, Education, Humanities and Gastronomic Sciences (Basque Culinary Center). Mondragon University has a focus on demand-led education including dual studies, learning by doing and soft skills development. It has a unique cooperative governance system, and each permanent staff member has a stake in the university.